300 Biographies

I’ve read over 300 biographies.

The last several years of my life have been dominated by biographies, in fact, in all their forms. Some are slanted political narratives, meant to illustrate pros or cons in the life of a certain person. Some are densely researched tomes of knowledge, with 200 pages worth of sources and cited works at the end. Some are fluffy, feel-good autobiographies, written by a famous person who wants to keep their secrets, while other autobiographies are caustic tell-alls.

I hand-select many of these books, setting goals for myself to learn about key individuals from important times in history (examples: Joe McCarthy and Chairman Mao), or to learn about people who have become my personal heroes (examples: Sally Ride and Barbara Jordan), or to uncover areas of personal passion like feminism (examples: Bella Abzug and Coco Chanel) or LGBT history (examples: Freddie Mercury and Bayard Rustin). Yet other books, I choose completely at random, closing my eyes and pulling them off a library shelf. Some of these are fluffy life anecdotes by people trying to capitalize on temporary fame (examples: Bristol Palin and Caitlyn Jenner), others are forgotten tomes on former celebrities (examples: Christine Jorgensen and Richard Wright), some are fascinating historical epics from unique voices (examples: Natacha Rambova and Guglielmo Marconi), while others are slap-your-knee hilarious and leave me devouring every word (examples: Minnie Pearl and Davy Rothbart).

I could write one hundred thousand words on reading these stories. Every shade of humanity from every corner of the globe, the only thing these 300 individuals have in common is they have either taken time to write their stories or someone has been interested enough to write about them. And they, strangely, all share a commonality, whether they are an Iraqi war refugee in the present, a 1950s American movie star, a prominent Civil Rights activist, or British royalty from the 1800s: they all encompass a simple yet complex human life. No matter what their lives were or are, no matter how consequential to human history, I learn the same lessons from every book.

  1. All human lives are temporary. Every passion, problem, struggle, endeavor, and conquest is relegated to ‘something that happened’ at the end. Nelson Mandela’s decades in prison, Rock Hudson’s wrestle with AIDS, Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, Judy Garland’s pill addictions, Gilda Radner’s battle with cancer… all things that just happened.
  2. Everyone gets older, one day at a time, until they aren’t there anymore; we all start and end somewhere. Brigham Young was a carpenter before he was a religious leader and statesman, Patty Hearst was a lonely heiress before she was kidnapped, and Gypsy Rose Lee was the forgotten child before she perfected her stripping act.
  3. We all see the world through our own eyes, and we all generally believe we are right during the time we thought it; we all usually change our minds as well. Slim Keith married Howard Hawk before she divorced him, Tig Notaro suffered through the cancer before she told jokes about it, and Gloria Steinem had to learn about women of color and their struggles through hard education.
  4. There is a lot of sad in the world, and there is a lot of happy, and this leaves me wanting to learn from the sad and to embrace the happy. I feel the heartbreak of the parents of Trayvon Martin and I celebrate the legal victories of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I ache for the once kidnapped Elizabeth Smart and I rejoice at how hard Tina Fey can make me laugh.
  5. Our heroes tend to be those who triumph over difficult, even impossible, odds and inspire us with their stories. Greg Louganis won his Olympic medals, Charlie Chaplin made incredible films against all odds, and Sonia Sotomayor inspired a generation after being appointed to the Supreme Court.

I tend to get through about one book per week. I read when I travel, and some of my favorite books have become tied into my personal experiences. I can’t think of Kay Graham taking over the Washington Post without remembering that six hour flight with the crying baby, the execution of Joe Hill makes me think of coffee and rainy Utah days, Evelyn Nesbit’s tragic rape takes me to the sidewalks of Liberty Park, and the deportation of Emma Goldman brings back the hot sun of a Mexican beach.

I’m learning from history. I’m finding new heroes. I’m learning to be outraged at history and injustice, and I’m learning how to live in my own now and create a better life for myself. Books and stories make me want to be better, be more, to live my dream and to make a difference. I have learned to love writers and their craft, and I let them fuel my own writing and research. I love libraries. I love the pressure I feel to get through a stack of new books. I love learning about both my heroes and the unknown. I carry books with me pretty much everywhere. I read between sets at the gym, over breakfast, and before I fall asleep. I usually have a book-on-tape playing in the car. I want to absorb everything I can, lose myself in the stories of others, and I want to emerge a better person on the other side.

I want more books. I want to read them all. One at a time, as I live my life, I want to read each and every story out there.

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“Give him a chance!”

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Since the historic and painful election of Donald Trump, I keep hearing from leaders who disavowed him, everyone from Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney to Barack Obama himself, that we should give him a chance. The thing is, I don’t know if I can. I certainly don’t want to. It’s a survival skill to deny people who have shown they are willing to hurt me the opportunity to hurt me again.

I haven’t had great experiences with men in my life. My father was emotionally distant for years before he left the house, and he had little to do with me after that. And my stepfather was violent, with words and fists, just as he had been in two marriages prior to the one toward my mother. And I grew up in a church led by white men that told me being gay was a sin.

It was early on when I became aware of the patriarchal society that we live in, where we see entire systems that favor men, give them power, and then make excuses for their bad behavior and weakness. Religious institutions that give solely men the ability to act in God’s name, a country whose government only recognized white men as voting bodies and citizens for the first few hundred years of rule and have made it extremely difficult for anyone else who wants a place at the table, and employment systems that favor men in salary and position, after they grew up in schools that gave men better access to educational opportunities and resources. Men receive favoritism on almost every front of their lives, and white straight Christian men get the most handed to them.

Look at that basic system and history and tie that in to irrefutable statistics. Men almost universally are the perpetrators of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault and molestation (towards both men and women), and violent crimes, including murder and gun crimes. Men have driven our world to war. Men have enslaved races. Men cast laws that vilify and punish those that aren’t like them. And men toss aside anyone who tries to refute or reduce their power or ideals, generally in the name of a male god. (And when I say “almost universally”, I’m referencing statistics that are in excess of 95 per cent out of 100).

Not all men fall into these categories by any means. I’m a man who is a loving father of two sons. I know many men who are honorable, kind, and strong. But I have been hurt by many men, and not by any women. I learned long ago to keep clear boundaries around someone who has shown they are willing to hurt me. I will not, will never make excuses for someone who uses fists and violent words to hurt me. I will not give them another chance to do so. Forgive, never forget.

And so, I’m angry about being told to “give him a chance.” I accept the world that I live in is one that favors men, that says “boys will be boys” when a man commits a rape, and then blames the girl for the rape with “she should have said no more loudly” or “she shouldn’t have been drinking”; a society that says batterers were merely “pushed too hard” while blaming the woman for staying; religions that say that men have God-given potentials to lead others to salvation while women are merely meant to be wives and mothers and to serve the men they belong to.

I’m angry about a campaign that excused Donald Trump at every turn while vilifying Hillary Clinton; that shrugged off his sexual assault talk as “locker room talk” or “a long time ago” while lambasting her for calling some Americans deplorable; that excuses his failure to show tax returns and overlooks several pending criminal charges against him while constantly calling her a criminal for perceived offenses for which she is solely responsible. And I’m furious that we set up a patriarchal set of rules for Hillary to play by, saying this was the only way for a woman to become president, and then we tore her apart and blamed her for operating within the system that was set up.

I can’t keep making excuses for Trump. I won’t sympathize with him for being under pressure, I won’t explain away his terrible comments and statements about entire populations of people, I won’t shrug off his history of misogyny. He can put on a suit and speak to the people, but I will hear him describing walking in on teenage girls of beauty pageants so he can see them change because no one would stop him. I can watch him shake hands with foreign leaders, but I will remember him lauding Putin as a leader while threatening to register and ban an entire religion. I can see him shrug that gay people and black people and women are okay and they don’t bother him, but I will recall his endorsements by white supremacists, his governmental appointments of people who demonstrate hate toward those not like them, and the dozen women who have accused him of sexual assault.

Conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, it is long past time we let women have an equal, if not majority, position in leading our country, in any and all elected positions. There has been a lot of horrible and horrific things that have happened in our world’s history, and nearly all of it can be directly tied to a system that prefers men and places them in charge. We do not need men to merely honor and respect women, we need men to acknowledge and recognize that there are some things that women are better at, and on that list is leading.

I can only imagine how ugly things are about to get in a country that is willing to give men like Donald Trump a chance. I fear we are in for Richard Nixon, Joseph McCarthy, and J. Edgar Hoover levels of pain and shame in the few years ahead. And when someone strikes my cheek, I refuse to turn it so he can strike the other.